Supporting Public Education

In his Banner article last August, James K.A. Smith made a cogent case for Christian schooling (“The Case for Christian Education”). Joining an esteemed list of apologists with names like Beversluis, Oppewal, and Wolterstorff, he made attractive once again a Reformed vision for Christian day schools.

Christian schools are not supported uniformly by all Reformed denominations, however, which implies that Christian schooling is a fitting but not a necessary or sufficient indicator of Reformed orthodoxy. At least some members of the Reformed community recognize that their Reformed identity can be expressed and nurtured in a variety of educational contexts.

The very existence of private schools has consequences for public schools.

In fact, Reformed thinking prompts active involvement by Christians in the world of public schools. Abraham Kuyper’s “every square inch” surely includes the sphere of public education. Christian teachers and administrators are called to leadership roles in public schools. Christian parents, too, can be called to public education by enrolling their children, participating in parent-teacher organizations, and serving on school boards. Public education provides powerful possibilities for engaging the needs of God’s world and for making the gospel luminous.

As citizens, Christians have a stake in the welfare of our nations, and that welfare, as Thomas Jefferson noted long ago, is dependent on an educated populace. That’s why Christian voters consistently support public school millages as well as financially support an alternative school system. Though Christian school supporters lobby for more equitable sharing of public funds, most recognize the public good provided by tax-supported schools. Such civic-minded behavior is fitting for children of the King who “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17).

Canada and the United States are pluralistic societies that prize religious liberty. Yet how will we live with our deepest differences? Classrooms, both public and private, are places to model and teach how to do this, protecting all people despite our competing views about truth. Our Christian faith demands that all children be treated justly by the government and by schools.

Unintended Consequences

The very existence of private schools has consequences for public schools—consequences that are never intended by Christian school supporters but are nonetheless real. One is diminution in the overall quality of schools when some children are removed from the mix.

Children whose parents are able to afford private school tuition typically bring to school with them all the benefits and privileges of their more prosperous lives. They have travelled, gone to museums and plays, and been exposed to books. Studies show that middle-class children have tens of thousands more words in their vocabularies than impoverished children. When such students enroll in nonpublic schools, the opportunity to share their experience and knowledge with peers of differing backgrounds is lost.

A parallel cost for so-called “privileged” children is the loss of opportunity to learn from children whose life experiences differ from their own. Children who appear to have less can teach many things, such as coping skills, resilience, the fact that happiness is not found in the abundance of possessions, and the truth that beauty can be found and love given and received in many ways and places.

Another unintended wound to public education is reduction in the number of powerful advocates for school improvement. Any parent close to schools knows the value of alertness and advocacy. When too few involved parents are on the scene, the potential for injurious things to happen increases. Intolerable conditions persist because they remain unseen or because the people who see do not know how to change them—or because injustices that affect someone else are easier to ignore. The energy required to sustain Christian schools diverts the attention of many capable and savvy members of a community away from the public school system.

Illuminating and combating social injustice requires that we honestly and fully acknowledge how the practice of Christian schooling can operate to stigmatize, segregate, and disadvantage some children. We must face the reality that separate schools can contribute to the cultural and political devaluation especially of students who are poor or of ethnic minorities.

Public Education as Calling

Clearly, some Christians are called to teach in public schools. Close to half the teachers who graduate from the Christian college where I teach obtain employment as Christ-centered, transformational teachers in public schools. Many specifically seek employment in public education because they sense the world’s great need in that arena. They see schools that are insufficiently funded, poorly resourced, and inadequately staffed. As lovers of justice, they are offended by the inequities experienced by students in public schools, especially in urban areas. Addressing such issues becomes their ministry. For similar reasons, many congregations partner with their neighborhood public schools to provide tutoring, materials, encouragement, and prayer as part of their servant work.

Public school teachers are in a position to love and guide children and adolescents who may not receive what they need at home or in their neighborhoods (though we must not be quick to assume the worst of students’ home lives). As one teacher said to Gloria and Julia Stronks, “There is a gap between those who have the background to follow their dreams and those who hardly dare dream” (see Christian Teachers in Public Schools: A Guide for Teachers, Administrators, and Parents, Baker Books, 1999). While many children live in homes filled with love, no matter their economic background, too many in North America live in unsafe places in which it is a wonder that they survive. Thank God some teachers are called to spend themselves in the company of such students.

Parents sometimes feel compelled to send their children to public schools for reasons that are inherently Reformed. For example, some families are committed to live in city neighborhoods. They incarnate Jesus in their community advocacy and enroll their children in neighborhood public schools as a way of living out their Reformed witness in the world and as a means to teach their children how to be salt and light.

Much more can be said on this subject. Readers interested in developing their thinking about how Christians can live their faith in nonsectarian schools are encouraged to read the excellent book by Stronks and Stronks referenced above.

Public education is certainly holy ground that summons the investment of Reformed Christians.

For Discussion

  1. Why does the Christian Reformed Church, along with other Reformed churches, promote the cause of Christian day schools?
  2. Why would other Reformed Christians opt for public schools?
  3. What in Reformed thinking would prompt our active involvement in the world of public schools as well as private schools?
  4. What consequences might the establishment of Christian schools have to the public schools in their area?
  5. Are Christians who teach in public schools “copping out”? Should we support those Christian teachers? If so, how?
  6. Is public education "holy ground"? Explain.

About the Author

Dr. Thomas B. Hoeksema just retired after 36 years as professor of education at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., where his passion has been in building inclusive communities for diverse learners.

See comments (25)


The more we decide to depart from participation with our American institutions, including our public schools, the more we lose our influence as Christians within American society. How can we be salt and light if we are not even present? Rather than simply enroll in the nearest Christian private school I suggest parents pray about the important decision of where to attend school and seek counsel of wise Christian friends as to which school may be best for their son or daughter. The answer may be to enroll at the local neighborhood public school. With my former responsibilities as a public school superintendent I met many Christian students and their parents who did very well in public school.

The more we decide to depart from participation with our American institutions, including our public schools, the more we lose our influence as Christians within American society. How can we be salt and light if we are not even present? Rather than simply enroll in the nearest Christian private school I suggest parents pray about the important decision of where to attend school and seek counsel of wise Christian friends as to which school may be best for their son or daughter. The answer may be to enroll at the local neighborhood public school. With my former responsibilities as a public school superintendent I met many Christian students and their parents who did very well in public school.

I would have to disagree on the point that children whose parents can afford private school have more prosperous lives. Maybe in some places, but in my experience, the families that choose to send their children to PUBLIC schools are much more prosperous, have more money to spend on vacations, extra vehicles, etc., because they aren't spending upwards of $10,000 to send their kids to Christian school. In my own household, our kids did not get the ski trips, trips to Florida or other experiences their public school peers had, because they knew we were stretched just to pay for their tuition. They must have thought it was worth it because today they plan to send their own children to Christian schools.

I can understand an adult with a well-formed faith and sense of calling finding their call in a public school setting. But sending children to a public school when a Christian school is available seems to me to be akin to planting a seedling in a desert when it could have been planted next to a stream where it can develop deep healthy roots. When Christian church, home and school combine to help that seedling develop into a mature, healthy, deeply-rooted plant, then it will be able to withstand the storms of life in whatever setting those occur. Other than 'privileged' kids learning from those who appear to have less, your main argument seems to be that the loss to the public system is informed parental voices. Perhaps Christian parents should stay informed and involved with the public system but not sacrifice their children to it.

It seems to me most prosperous folk separate their children from the poor somehow, be it through private schools or moving to more exclusive suburbs. While I agree it would do a tremendous amount of good for public schools were this de facto segregation not reality, I'm not so sure I want to send my child to spend a quarter of his waking hours with people whose worldview I may not share, in an institution whose purpose is not God's purpose. Kudos to those who avoid fleeing the city for "safe" suburbs where they neither need meet nor serve the poor, and for those who give of their time to mentor and teach those who need it most.

"...typically bring to school with them all the benefits and privileges of their more prosperous lives" - not true. I know families who sacrifice a great deal to send their children to Christian schools. I also known families who send their children to Christian schools (sometimes just for senior year of high school) so their kids can graduate from a "better" school that will get them into a "good" college. I don't think we should be judging people one way or the other. The bottom line is our children are learning - and hopefully being nurtured spiritually the same at home whether they go to a Christian or public school.

"Perhaps Christian parents should stay informed and involved with the public system but not sacrifice their children to it."

Sacrifice their children to it?

I'm sorry, but from what year do you come?

I find the assertion that parents who send their kids to public schools are some how the de facto poor. As a parent who has chosen public school rather than private it is clear to me that my kids and their peers have had a broader set of life experiences than Christian school kids.

I would note that the article and the discussion questions alike assume a privileged status for the Christian schools. Our neighbors in public schools almost certainly do not share that conviction, and that is the problem, at least in terms of missions.

For our neighbors, the schools are one of the chief expressions of community, both in its diversity and common purpose. To read this commitment in ideological terms (e.g. "government schools"), or to see the public school only as a place for the poor (and so for our condescension) create barriers to reaching our neighbors.

There is a fundamental theological reason for engagement, as well: Baptism. When we make our vows to raise the children, it cannot be just for the particular child in front of us. Our vow extends to all children who share this mark: Christian Reformed (certainly), but also Reformed, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic. The public school, no less than the Christian one then is a place where we raise up our common baptized children to be the people whom God has called them to be.

I once heard a wise man say "If you send your children to Caesar, don't be surprised when they come back as Romans"

The Matthew reference to salt and light is in the indicative form, not the imperative. We cannot teach God's children to "be salt and light" anymore than I can teach my dog to be a dog.

Certainly none of us believes that public education is religion neutral correct? If I have a duty to disciple my children, am I helping them by sending them to 14 thousand hours of instruction in a competing worldview? Matthew 22:37 says. . .Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your _ _ _ _. Sending my kids to be educated by a competing worldview feels like I am asking them to love the Lord with all their minds except for the 14 thousand hours they are bombarded by a false worldview during their formative years.

Jesus said: "Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher."
- Luke 6:39, 40

"Learn not the way of the heathen."
- Jeremiah 10:2

"He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm."
- Proverbs 13:20

What if we as Reformed communities bonded together to protect our children from public education? What if we were to do everything we could to make sure our children are raised with a reformed perspective of Math, Literature, Art, Science, Sexual Purity, History, Religion and other topics?

Imagine if we could create a community where our brothers and sisters in Christ thought it bizarre to even consider sending God's children in our care to a worldview hostile to the Gospel.

And those neighbors of ours, let's just tell them the Gospel. Not just with "the way we live our lives", but with words! Over the fence, in the back yard, at the block party, on the golf course. (I would add as a teacher in the public school that your children don't attend, but you wouldn't be a teacher for long if you did.)

What a great conversation starter to begin by explaining why our kids go to a different school. . .

Dr. Hoeksema leaves his position in a Christian College where he has been for many years. He has enjoyed the platform of a tenured professor to give him "authority" in the public forum. A great sadness came over me as I read his defense of public education. Just as Calvinism leads us to be "in the world" without being ""of the world, so does it lead us to Christian education. He has had many years to influence our Christian school teachers. I only hope there were others who balanced what he taught them.
Christian education has led thousands of students to the college that has given him his life.

I just read Dr. Hoeksema's article "Supporting Public Education," and my feelings about it can be summed up in one resounding word: "AMEN!"  I am a public education teacher in a school on the Navajo reservation. Many of our students come from extremely difficult home life situations. Poverty, alcoholism, drug addictions, gambling addictions, and general hopelessness run rampant in the area. Our school is often the only positive influence in many of our students' lives and it needs the support of the church community. Thankfully there are several Christian teachers and other staff members who regularly show God's love to these precious scholars. We share after-school program services with a local Christian school just a few miles away from our school which has been a blessing for both schools. I spent a significant amount of my life dreaming of teaching in a Christian School. I was always extremely disappointed when I was turned down for jobs at these schools. Now I see that it was God's plan to lead me to the public school where I teach. I have been there for 8 years so far, and I don't see myself leaving anytime soon. Thank you Dr. Hoeksema for bringing to light the importance of Christian teachers and parents in public education, and for encouraging me as I continue my mission in public education.

Dr. Hoesema says,"As lovers of justice, they are offended by the inequities experienced by students in public schools, especially in urban areas."

Christians absolutely should be offended. According to Linda Darling-Hammond, there is a 10 - 1 funding disparity in public school, per pupil spending. Within most states a 3 - 1 disparity exists. The wealthiest children are funded at higher levels than the poorest children.

Schools with the heaviest concentration of students of color often have the lowest funding formulas.

As noted, these are the very children whose lives are affected by poverty in many ways.

Whether or not parents choose Christian schools for their own children, all Christians should support public schools. Votes for equitable funding, advocacy for public schools and teachers and involvement in volunteer and outreach programs is a good place for Christians to start.

I wish that this article had been published 30-40 years ago. It was as true then as it is today. If it had, we would have a much larger CRC today.

As a public school teacher, I concur with much of what Dr.Hoeksema has to say. Publicly funded schools are diminuted by the exodous of "good" students and families to Christian schools. As a public school teacher I do resent that the Christian School enjoys a glut of involved, prosperous, and powerful advocates that could no doubt invoke some positive change in the public system. All of that is well and good, but I am also a parent who wishes for nothing more than to have my children understand God's grace. The question becomes, how do I marry my desire to invoke positive change in the public school system with my desire to raise my children in a way that will give them the best opportunity to know Christ? Well, as far as priorities go, nothing trumps the future of my kids. I have chosen a Christian School and I think that is in the best interest of every Reformed parent. There are countless other ways to live out our call to be witnesses.

As a Christian school educator married to a wonderful women who has devoted her professional life to public education I believe I have the right to offer some perspective: I do agree with the Dr. that Reformed Christians can certainly serve in public schools. However is seems the Dr. Hoeksema is implying that people in CRC circles don't support Christians serving in public schools. My grandfather was a Christian School superintendent and he said he wasn't anti public school but more so pro-Christian education. Most people I attend church with feel similarly (yes....I know there are exceptions.) To say reformed Christians can't serve Christ in a secular setting isn't a reformed way of thinking. However, I would like to point out that as reformed Christians we have just as much responsibility to establish institutions (schools, businesses, homes) that promote a reformed perspective as we do in living out this truth in a secular setting. We shouldn't act as if being a reformed Christian is limited to living out these beliefs in secular settings such as public schools. We also have a responsibility to maintain and support these truths by establishing institutions that will uphold these truths (for example: Calvin College)

However, to have Christian Education foot the bill for "stigmatizing" and "devaluing" poor and ethnic minorities is unfair and unfortunate. Christian Schools and their supporters don't "devalue" the poor, SIN and sinful people do. It is more than safe to say that public school teachers unions spend millions to keep "school choice" out of our nation’s vernacular and because of this many poor students are disenfranchised. How does the support and establishment of Christian schools, who properly teach young people to respect and serve the poor "devalue" them in any way? My counter argument would be that the promotion of evolutionary (Not the deistic kind) theory that is taught as fact in public schools at all socio economic levels does much more to devalue human life within society than any institution ever could. But that subject is for another time.

I am tired of Christians "eating their own" when we try to establish institutions that nurture the faith of young people by teaching them to connect God's World to His Word. This I believe is God's intention for education and to say that children being exposed to students of different ethnic backgrounds and socio economic levels trumps the Christian Schools mission to deliver what is true (the truth being a Biblical perspective of the world) is to diminish the importance of teaching a child to "think" biblically about what they learn. Any yes, Christian schools do need to improve in how they reflect the diversity of their communities. But do the “devalue” the poor? No.

Dr. Hoeksema is right, as Reformed Christians we do need to support public education. However, Dr. Hoeksema's responsibility to teach this is not reserved to college professors at Liberal Arts institutions such as Calvin College. It is a shared responsibility between the church, the home, and Christian Day Schools that support Dr. Hoeksema's sentiment of being Christ's hands and feet regardless of where God places you professionally (public school teacher, Christian school teacher, doctor, lawyer, laborer, or homemaker. Without Christian day schools, colleges such as Calvin would be the only educational institutions that would educate young people in this "radical" way of living. Do we really want to wait until our children are 18 to expose them to this?

Dr. Hoeksema,
Thank you so much for the article you wrote on Supporting Public Education! As a Christian parent whose covenant children attended public schools, and as a 10 year employee of the second largest public school in Michigan along with a spouse who was on that same school board for 7 years, we don't always feel validated and encouraged in our commitment to public education. For our family, it is a social justice issue.
Thank you again, for your encouragement. I feel energized to begin another school year!

As a former Christian school teacher, founding board member of a new Christian high school, and continued supporter of Christian education as a parent, I am dismayed by the rationale Dr. Hoeksema makes for sending our children to public education. In Canada (Ontario), Christian schools receive no funding from government sources - parents pay taxes for public institutions and then also full tuition for Christian school. In many respects, the "have-nots" in the Ontario education system are the Christian schools. Ironically, as supporters of our Christian schools, it is we who suffer with no government funding for programs, transportation, resources, and the like and are denied basic status as an educational insitution in the determination of hostile government departments. Nonetheless, as parents and a supporting community, we commit to providing these programs and resources for our children despite the financial pressures it brings. We are rich with the blessing of a Christ-centred perspective in the education provided in Christian schools. I want for my children a foundation of education (wisdom) based on the knowledge of the Lord. Not only can't that wisdom be found in the public education system in Ontario, it is denied, attacked, and replaced with countless false and humanistic teachings that flow from the spirit of the age we live in.

I do not judge Dr Hoekesema's good intentions, but he left the perception that Christian schools are the culprits. Actually the government that monopolizes the schools (which they call public-Christian schools are public also) is the culprit. If educational taxes were distributed equally to all citizens, many of the low income families would choose Christian schools for their children and the disparities Thomas writes about would not exist. Isn't justice a major piece of being Reformed?

Christian education is the best way (not the only way) to educate God's children. Dr. Hulst, former president of Dordt College, once said that "Christian education is not just nice, but necessary." It is not the culprit!

Donna: Blessings on your school year and a genuine thank you for what you do and continue to do. As I mentioned in my prior post, we need faithful Christians in the public sector. As a Christian School Admin. I am sorry if you feel marginalized. Please know that generally speaking, most of those involved in maintaining and working in Christian Schools support your calling in public education.

Matt Covey
Elementary Principal-Sioux Falls Christian Schools

The following was submitted as a Letter to the Editor on August 15. Since the September issue of The Banner did not include any responses to Dr. Hoekesema's article, I trust it is still fitting to share it in this forum. Regards, HK

Re: The existence of Christian schools has consequences for public schools

In his July 15, 2011 article on education, Dr. Thomas Hoeksema asserts and implies that the existence of Christian schools has negative consequences on public education. Such a position can only serve to feed a developing complacency around the existence and importance of independent Christian day schooling. This is especially concerning in Ontario where, for decades, private Christian schooling has been dealing with a funding inequity unlike most areas in Canada and beyond.

Is Dr. Hoeksema prepared to apply a similar argument towards private Christian post-secondary institutions such as Calvin College? Have not the independent Christian schools throughout North America provided a steady stream of new students each year for Calvin? Has that not been one of the major reasons why the very institution that provided Dr. Hoeksema a place for his own personal and professional flourishing as well as steady employment for 36 years has thrived? I accept that his argument is not about jobs per se but I do find this ironic.

At a Cardus (think tank) event two years ago, I heard a renowned professor from a ‘secular’ post-secondary institution argue that it is time we call out public schools for what they really are – state schools! Our governments, influenced and buoyed by powerful teacher unions dictate the agenda for the instruction of our children. There is no room for Christ in state school classrooms and yet, the “religions” of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and witches & goblins, among others, are more than welcome. Have we lost sight of our ultimate responsibility as Christian parents to teach our children that our God is Lord and Master over all creation? Private, parent-run, independent Christian schools bless parents with this opportunity to work together to fulfill this God-endowed responsibility.

I wholeheartedly commend the many Calvin graduates and graduates of other teacher education programs that “specifically seek employment in public education because they sense the world’s great need in that arena”. This is kingdom work as well. However to fault Christian schools for the complex problems being experienced in the public systems is neither constructive nor conducive to the health and growth of Christian education in our times.

Henry Koornneef, Executive Director
Foundation for Niagara & Hamilton area Christian Schools

Do Christian schools deliver on their promises? Cardus reports on the largest-ever sample of Christian school graduates and administrators in North America, focusing on students' spiritual formation, cultural engagement, and academic development. The report is available free of charge in digital form, and can also be ordered in print form, available at cost. (

THE CARDUS EDUCATION SURVEY (CES) studies alignment between the motivations and outcomes of Christian education, to better understand the role of Christian schools in students’ lives, in families, and in larger society.

IN CONTRAST TO the popular stereotypes portraying Christian schools as promoting a socially fragmented, anti-intellectual, politically radical, and militantly right-winged lifestyle, this comprehensive study reveals a very different picture of the Christian school graduate. Compared to their public school, Catholic school, and non-religious private school peers, Protestant Christian school graduates are uniquely compliant, generous, outwardly-focused individuals who stabilize their communities
by their uncommon commitment to their families, their churches, and larger society. Graduates of
Christian schools donate money significantly more than graduates of other schools, despite having
lower household income. Similarly, graduates of Protestant Christian schools are more generous with
their time, participating far more than their peers both in service trips for relief and development and
in mission trips for evangelization.
Administrators of Catholic and Protestant Christian schools both report emphasizing family as one of
the most important values in their schools; Protestant Christian schools, however, are more likely to
make family the top-ranked emphasis than any of the other options given. This emphasis seems to be
taking hold in Protestant Christian school graduates, who are having more children and divorcing less
frequently than their peers from public and Catholic schools.
This study shows that the stereotypical picture of the highly political right-wing Protestant Christian is
false. We find no evidence that Christian schools are breeding grounds for the right-most wing of political conservatives, nor do we find that Christian school graduates are “culture warriors.”
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Thanks for your post. I feel CSI or someone needs to offer a response in the Banner similar to the one you posted in hopes of balance and perspective. What are your thoughts on getting the ball rolling here?

Matt Covey
Elementary Principal
Sioux Falls Christian Schools, Sioux Falls, SD


Thank you for your comments. I agree. Although this forum is great, I was surprised that the September issue of The Banner did not include a single response to Dr. Hoeksema's article, although I'm sure there were many submitted to the Editor along with mine. It begs the question, would a follow-up article in The Banner(one similar to that of James Smith last August, or as you suggest, to show balance and perspective) be conducive to the RCA-CRC merger discussions taking place? Not an assumption; just a question.

Henry Koornneef, Executive Director
Foundation for Niagara & Hamilton area Christian Schools

My husband is a newly retired CRC pastor. All three of our children went to public schools. We served in churches where christian schools were not readily available. There were many Christian teachers and students in the public schools. I served on the PTA and along with many other Christian women, worked very hard to make our school the best it could be, including raising money for much needed equipment, supporting the teachers by giving them help as needed, and befriending students who had difficult home situations. We,as parents, and our church gave the religious training to our children and we were always there to answer questions our children had about the lifestyles and beliefs of others. At the high school level our children were able to take AP classes and received an excellent education. We always believed that it would be good for our children to be exposed to all different situations and then come home and talk about it. Those were the best teachable moments. Our children are all Christ-followers and involved in churches. I sense a lot of fear in others who are afraid to follow this path.